Hayden's Ferry Review is starting a new feature on our blog collecting the best (most interesting, most unusual, most helpful!) practices of creative writing teachers: assignments, exercises, demonstrations, speeches, prompts, lessons, etc. As recently as this year there was an article in The New Yorker titled "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?" There is still the idea among some that creative writing is an ephemeral thing that cannot be explained. Or worse, that great writers are simply born, not improved through study and practice. Literally, it's time to get the word out about what we do and how well we do it. Good for writers, good for teachers. Our inaugural piece is below. We hope you enjoy it.
The Squid and The Whale And The Iceberg
by B.J. Hollars
It was not a stroke of genius, but perhaps, more a stroke of necessity.
I was having trouble teaching my creative writing students the art of subtext, and as I fuddled through all kinds of examples shouting, “See? Don’t you see what’s not there?” I eventually received enough side-long glances to understand that that answer was no; they did not see what was “not there.”
Nor should they have.
Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext does a far better job of teaching this skill than I, welcoming the writer into “the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken.”
Meanwhile, I remained confidant in my own unique approach, tearing out my hair while shouting, “See? You people need glasses or what?”
As it turned out, my students required no optometric assistance whatsoever, and the best way for my students to “see” subtext was to actually show them a visual example. Perhaps no visible example is as spot-on as the opening scene of Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid And The Whale.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, it’s the story of two boys who witness and play roles in their parents’ divorce. It’s pretty heart wrenching, to say the least, but what makes the film so powerful is the level at which Baumbach relies on subtext to tell the tale, leaving didacticism at the door.
In the opening scene, Bernard (the father) and his eldest son Walt engage in a doubles match against Joan (the mother) and Frank, the youngest son.
The scene is brutal.
While nearly every line of dialogue could quite easily find its way into any ordinary doubles match (“It was out” and “It’s my call” and “It’s part of the game, Mom”) the way in which the lines are delivered offers a staggeringly brutal account of a family in shambles. Baumbach never gives us any particular lines related to the impending divorce, yet the doubles teams clearly align who sides with whom, drawing battle lines prior to showing us the battle.
As a class, we watched the scene twice, the first time simply observing it, and the second time with excerpts from the screenplay in front of them. The students marveled at the dialogue, trying to find strategies that they could incorporate in their own work.
And yet…it wasn’t just the dialogue, but also, the circumstance, which allowed for such powerful subtext. We began discussing Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in which he argues, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”
Essentially, much like an iceberg (which is one-eighth above the waterline and seven-eighths below), if we tell it true enough, what remains below the water will always rise to the surface.
It seems an impossible trick, and yet the opening scene of The Squid And The Whale is proof. The viewer understands the entirety of the family dynamic by the way in which the characters position themselves and deliver their lines.
The doubles match was simply the vehicle to reveal what familial tragedies lingered just below the surface.
In one instance, after Bernard “accidently” hits Joan with a tennis ball, Walt cries out, “Yes!” while Bernard cries, “Joan! I’m sorry! It was an accident!” Joan walks off the court, and while Bernard chases after, the two boys are left alone. Walt stares at his bother disapprovingly—and without ever mentioning their parents’ behavior—informs him, “You got to get a second serve.”
The words are cold, and yet, in another context, under difference circumstances, they would just be part of the normal tennis-related conversation.
But we know better.
And the audience knows better.
And hopefully, the students know better now, too.